Swedish town makes unprecedented move for iron ore mine

(MENAFN- AFP) In a colossal unprecedented experiment, Sweden's northernmost town Kiruna is preparing to move its entire city centre to make way for its expanding iron ore mine.

Located 145 kilometres (90 miles) north of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lappland, Kiruna was built up in the early 1900s around what has become the world's largest underground iron ore mine.

Now home to 18,000 residents, Kiruna needs to move about four kilometres (2.5 miles) to the east as the mine's extraction area inches deeper and closer to the town, causing cracks to shoot up under its foundations.

"We have always lived off the mine and we always will," Bror Pudas, 79, who lives on Gruvvaegen, or Mine Road, says assuredly.

But the task is mammoth: all major buildings, streets, the highway and railroad have to be rebuilt, as well as apartment buildings and water, sewage and electrical systems.

Nestled high up in the wilderness, Kiruna is surrounded by pristine, stunning nature, within view of Sweden's highest mountain Kebnekaise. It enjoys the midnight sun in summer, and is plunged into darkness for six weeks in winter.

Its town centre mixes charming old wooden houses with drab and characterless concrete buildings on wide streets.

Some 6,200 residents and most businesses and shops have to relocate.

Half of Bror Pudas' street will disappear so the state-controlled company LKAB can continue to mine the four-kilometre wide vein of iron ore beneath the surface.

"The town wouldn't collapse right away. But there would be deformations, irregularities underground that could dislodge pipes and crack buildings," explains Kiruna's deputy vice mayor Stefan Sydberg.

- A move 'without any interruption' -

LKAB informed Kiruna of the situation in 2003, and told town officials they either move the parts of the centre that could collapse if the company's expansion went ahead, or risk stifling Kiruna's largest employer, with 2,100 jobs.

The location of "new Kiruna" was selected in 2009, steering clear of mining concessions and the migratory routes of reindeer.

The goal is to move all of the town's businesses to the new centre at the same time in 2019.

But with less than five years to go, work on the new town has yet to begin. The site is still an evergreen forest, with no construction materials or workers as far as the eye can see.

"We usually say that the move has to start on a Friday and be finished by Monday. We need a town centre that will function without any interruption for residents," Sydberg says.

While most locals support the move -- understanding the need to keep the mine in business to keep jobs -- some are sceptical about how it's going to be done.

Linda Persson, who works at an optician located close to the mine, is one of them.

"We want to know who will be moving when. But nobody has any answers. It's an unprecedented experiment," she says.

The project is unparalleled. Germany tore down villages to make way for brown coal mines, while the Chilean town of Chuquicamata was abandoned because it was too close to the world's largest copper mine.

But never before has an entire town centre been destroyed and rebuilt elsewhere.

- At least 100 more years -

The move is estimated to cost between 15 and 30 billion kronor (1.6 to 3.2 billion euros, $1.8 to $3.55 billion). LKAB will pay for most of it, its business boosted by a mineral whose quality improves the deeper the mine goes.

Miners are currently extracting iron ore at a depth of 1,045 metres (3,428 feet). Meanwhile, other workers are tunnelling and building a new site at 1,365 metres, to be operational in 2017.

"We've test drilled down to 2,000 metres and the deposits continue. Beneath that we don't know, but we know there's still enough for at least another 100 years of mining," explains Marit Olofsson, who guides visitors through the mine's museum located 540 metres below the surface.

Dan Lundstroem once worked at this level as a machine foreman. Now 64 and retired, he lives in an apartment provided by the mine but has to leave it "in the next five years."

"I looked at a few new apartments but I didn't see any I liked. I want a balcony and a view of the mountain, like I have," he says, echoing the thoughts of many who are waiting for new housing to be built.

Once the new town centre is built, the move will still take decades to complete.

The town's architectural jewel -- a magnificent, light-flooded red wooden church voted Sweden's most beautiful building in 2001 -- is to be taken apart and reassembled in the new town in the 2030s.

Once the last building has moved, old Kiruna will be returned to nature, giving way to parks and green areas.


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